Today, Myanmar has similar mobile phone usage rates to North Korea, Eritrea and Cuba – less than 10 percent of the population. At the same time, technology restrictions in the country are easing. Three mobile operators are racing to roll out services, which will rapidly bring the 60 million people who live in Myanmar into a digital reality, practically overnight.
On August 6, 2014, FHI 360 convened a workshop in Yangon to explore the role of information and communications technology and development in Myanmar, attended by leading technologists and development experts from Myanmar and across the Asia Pacific region. The workshop centered on three questions that address technology’s impact on government, civil society, business and most importantly, people’s lives:
- What are the social and cultural impacts when a country goes online virtually overnight?
- What will the people of Myanmar find on the Internet of today? Or tomorrow?
- Who will benefit when all of the citizens of Myanmar have a digital voice?
While attendees touched on many points throughout the discussion, and did not always agree on the answers to our questions, we did find general consensus that by 2018, Myanmar will have a very different technology landscape.
We envisioned a future technology landscape that development practitioners should be planning for now:
Technology will be ubiquitous
By 2018, almost every household in Myanmar will have a smartphone, and almost every person will have access to a mobile device. Internet access, speed and affordability will increase in cities and towns and will most often be delivered via wireless technologies. Even in rural areas, mobile network coverage will be common and affordable.
Social media will be a central aspect of the Myanmar online experience. Citizens, government and civil society will interact seamlessly via multiple media formats on these networks. Meanwhile, mobile money will be common and accepted for online purchases and person-to-person payments, as will the ability to pay with phone-based systems.
Government and civil discourse will happen online
Citizens will be able to access eGovernment services via mobile devices. Government will have real-time data flows that reflect citizen interaction, such as in health clinics and schools. Technology will increase the civil discourse between citizens and their elected officials, and those officials will respond and campaign via online platforms, with social media paying a central role in every election. Communities will have widespread access to technology tools that will allow them to have a voice in monitoring the progress of their own development.
Private sector expansion
A thriving technology ecosystem will be responding to the country’s needs and building out Myanmar’s digital presence to reach businesses and consumers. Myanmar’s language fonts and translation capabilities will be represented in mobile device menus and online websites.
Myanmar is on the cusp of a national debate on the cultural and legal norms for online communications. The country has yet to start managing the shift from paper-based systems to digital ones. Finally, the shift from an analog to a digital economy will not be without winners and losers. Printed mediums may fall out of favor, automation will streamline repetitive tasks, and businesses large and small will likely have to adjust their workforce in response.
As development actors, we should not sit idly by. We need to engage with communities, government, civil society and the private sector, to help in this transformation. We also must acknowledge that we, too, will be transformed. We cannot expect to do development in 2018, or even tomorrow, as we are doing it today, especially when the people of Myanmar start to direct their own digital destiny, smartphones in hand.